The Obesity Paradox


The “Obesity Paradox” is highly controversial and hard to digest as it goes against our ideology around weight.

9730712923_dd0923c963_oCredit: Ian Ransley Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

Research is starting to show that being overweight and fit may be healthier than being normal weight and unfit. Also people aged 65+ who carry a little extra weight may have greater life expectancy than those who do not.

These findings have obviously been met with skepticism by many health experts [source: Craig Freudenrich]. The verdict is still not out on the obesity paradox, and more research is needed. In the meantime, it appears that fat is a piece of a bigger health puzzle. Our focus on weight loss has not helped reduce obesity; we need to find the cause.

For a long time now we have known obesity to be a major risk factor for many diseases such as heart disease, type II diabetes and some cancers. While the health risks around obesity remain, it seems this focus may have been letting a bigger fish -our obesogenic environment and industrialised diet- off the hook.

What we have learnt from past health campaigns is that signalling out a risk factor can have unforeseen effects on population-level health. We saw this when saturated fat was attributed to increasing the incidence of heart disease. This led to a 50-year long global anti-fat campaign, which did reduce the incidence of heart disease, but also led to a global increase in consumption of sugars and trans-fats, which replaced saturated fat in ‘low-fat alternatives’.

9373535772_279f5850d9_zCredit: Next twenty eight Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

The epidemiologist and population health expert Paul Marantz suggests ironically the legacy of the anti-fat campaign is partly associated with the obesity and type II diabetes epidemic that we see today. This is because low-fat products came with a perception of being ‘healthy’, so people consumed more and this meant their sugar and trans-fat intake skyrocketed.

Vilifying nutrients like refined sugars and trans-fat probably won’t fix the problem. Food manufacturers just find a replacement, which can cost our health more in the long run, as we saw when sugar replaced fat. To make matters worse, chemical-nutrient profiles aren’t that helpful when discerning healthy food choices. Clever marketing by food corporations make products appear nutritious without having any REAL nutrient benefits and clearly seen in products like vitamin-water [source: Gyorgy Scrinis].

How should consumers navigate this treacherous obesogenic landscape?

Until the links between nutrition, health and lifestyle diseases are fully understood, the nutrition message is: stick to eating REAL food. But around 95% of food products in supermarkets are in boxes, so how do you see REAL food?

Food science writer Michael Pollan provides us with a simple  pointer “don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food!”

Alas, my mid-morning two-minute noodle snack probably does not fit the food bill…Sorry GG.


Further information:

The great fat debate:

Gyorgy Scrinis Weight-loss shocker: Diet books are lying to you, October 24th, 2013, SALON.

Can You Be Fat and Fit — or Thin and Unhealthy? Men you made us fat documentary:

12 Responses to “The Obesity Paradox”

  1. samsing says:

    Really interesting topic. Two of my best friends are nutritionists, and we normally talk about this things.

    Sometimes is very hard to find “real food” when you don’t have much time to cook, or go to the market (which would be idea). So a “rule of thumb” for my friends is, if the box (whatever that is) lists more than 5 ingredients, put it back on the shelf.

  2. gcao says:

    I have friends that just eat mcdonalds/kfc whenever they go out. I think its because most of the healthier foods don’t quite appeal to them so they stick with the old favorites. I think those people are the hardest to change and constitute a large number of overweight people. I think its almost like its some form of addiction where the more they eat, the more enjoyment or dopamine stimulation they get in the brain. I believe if you oversaturate the market with healthier alternatives and reduce the number of fast food outlets, that may help in the long run.

  3. brema says:

    Great post!

    I have always been so frustrated with the association of weight and fitness. I feel that the paradox you are talking about creates a great deal of blissful ignorance in the public. Too many people who are within a ‘healthy’ weight range lead sedentary lifestyles, then are shocked to see they have developed type 2 diabetes. I think the misconception urgently needs to be addressed in the public. Again, well done on a great post.

  4. jmaguire says:

    Really interesting stuff jfrench! I have a friend who is thin but has a horrible diet in which chocolate is her main food group. But by being thin people assume she is healthy – thin and healthy are not synonymous.

  5. jfrench says:

    Thanks for your comment Mikzon!

    Cheap food deals are incredibly deceptive to consumers. I took ‘politics of food’ last semester too! A great subject

  6. mlakidang says:

    Big enterprises such as supermarkets and franchise play important role in consumers diet. Branding products such as vitamin-water mislead consumers. Buy 2 gets 3 is a great example where markets force consumers to buy and consume what they’re not actually need.
    Georgy Scrinis’ subject, the politics of food, reveals this issue.
    Thanks mate for great post.

  7. jfrench says:

    Thanks for your comments Emma!
    I agree with you about portion sizes. I was told recently that calorie intake and portion sizes on food packaging are based around a standard which is a tall, young male…clearly this does not apply to most of us!
    I also agree with you about using grams, is it possible to eat a recommended 15grams of a chocolate bar and leave the other 35g for another day! Unlikely…

  8. egiles says:

    Excellent post. It’s really important for us all to be thinking about these things. There is SO much information out there…so many diets, recommendations, misconceptions and contradictions. It’s hard to keep it all straight. But at the end of the day, it’s all about good ol’ real good, as you said, and a healthy dose of exercise.

    I think food labels play a big role in leading people astray. Not only are there regularly flat-out errors, but they’re often very hard for the average person to put into perspective. For example, why state yogurt servings in grams? Sure, it can be looked up (or weighed), but the average person probably won’t do that! It’s hard to keep portions in check and create a life of balance when simple things like food labels are made more difficult then they need to be.

  9. jfrench says:

    Hi georginao,

    Thank you for your comment and recommendation to check out Dr. Karl’s post! I shall have a look now. Michael Pollan is such a great food science writer, with a knack for summing things up nicely for us.

  10. georginao says:

    There’s another great quote by Michael Pollan which fits your post nicely – ‘eat food, not too much and mostly plants’.
    The obesity debate is such a big one (pun)! I often like reading dietician blogs (Dr. Karl did one recently too) about weight loss, healthy eating etc. and scrolling down to the bottom and reading all the different comments. People get very passionate, if not slightly aggressive about it. I wonder if we’ll ever agree on something. One thing that I believe to be general consensus these days is that excess weight around the middle is of particular concern.

  11. jfrench says:

    Thanks! Yes, we’d probably have a pretty bare supermarket if great grandma had any say!

  12. ahmadma says:

    I really like the pointer “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldnt recognise as food!”

    and yeah, i agree with you that being normal weight and unhealthy is bad. I know a few people who have normal BMI, but they have high blood pressure and other health complications because they are unhealthy. being active is important.